Paine and His Critics

Aug 15, 2020 in History Essay

American Revolution Essay

During the struggle for American Independence, there were different considerations and positions concerning the proper way of the American nation's future development. Therefore, the history of those epochs' internal political contradictions is as interesting as the history of the war for independence against the British Empire. In fact, the history of the United States of the late 18th century is the history of separate political and ideological movements each of which tried to lead the nation. One of the most prominent thinkers and social activists of those times was Thomas Paine whose Common Sense became the best manifesto for those Americans who wanted to live independently from England. It is important that Thomas Paine proclaimed the need for democratic transformations of the American government, and in this way, it is clear today that Paine's position was the most successful and adequate. Besides, there were many critics of Paine's ideas, and these thinkers provided their criticism from different positions. In this way, the analysis of Paine's critics may allow one to understand some side of the ideological and political variety. James Chalmers, Reverend Charles Inglis, and John Adams provided the most prominent criticism of Paine's manifesto, and each of them protected some specific position. The main difference between Paine and his critics is that only Paine had enough realism and courage to accept and theoretically formulate such radical changes as both the American independence and the American democracy.

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Thomas Paines Common Sense

The main ideas of Paine's work concerned the origins and purposes of the government. First, the author discusses the problem that people usually do not differ society from the government when there is a great difference. Thus, Paine (1776) claims that society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness (p. 69). In a wider sense, it means that society provides people the freedom to do something when government exists in order to keep them from deviant activity that may cause some damage to others (Paine, 1776, p. 69). According to Paine (1776), government exists to control society and limit its freedom for the common sake, and in this way, government functions as an instrument created by society for social purposes. Through the primary role of society and the secondary one of government, Paine (1776) concludes that society has the right to choose and change its government in order to get better results and advantages of its development to become happier. At the same time, the interests of the government are as secondary as its nature, and in this way, the situation when society suffers because of its government contradicts to common sense (Paine, 1776). Through such an argumentation, Paine comes to the idea that colonial America contradicts to common sense when its tendency to achieve independence is very reasonable and useful for the Americans. At the same time, Paine (1776) tries to demonstrate that not only external independence, but also internal freedom are the sources of peoples happiness: as long as Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil (p. 69). Paine understands that it is also impossible to live without government at all, and calls the Americans to establish such a democracy in which government would be close to society as much as possible. Paine contraposes such a government to the British monarchy in which the elites (both the King and the Peers) do not take into account the purposes of people and try to satisfy only their own needs. Those are the main ideas of Thomas Paine concerning the issues of government and ideology.

Reverend Charles Inglis Criticism of Common Sense

Charles Inglis, as a conservative clergyman and moderate loyalist, considered that Thomas Paine's aim was only to achieve some personal profits through the American Independence and democracy propaganda. It is very illustrative that Inglis titled his work The Deceiver Unmasked, trying to show that Thomas Paine wants to trick the Americans and, in this way, to get some personal achievements through the destruction of the previous political structure. His main objections against Paine are those negative results that may come with the American colonies separation from its metropolis. Among those are a war against one of the most powerful armies in the world, the loss of imperial protection and support, and other arguments of the same quality (Inglis, 1776, pp. 2-3). Inglis underlines that the monarchical government is probed and justified by many centuries when the democratic social order proposed by Paine is something like a delusion and sophistical trickery (Inglis, 1776, p. 6). According to Inglis (1776), The author of Common Sense is a violent stickler for democracy or republicanism only every other species of government is reprobated by him as tyrannical, and in this way, Inglis sees in Paine only a fanatical radical who cannot even for the sake of argument share his opponents position (p. 6). At the same time, it is clear that it was Inglis whose lack of intellectual flexibility did not allow him to understand the actuality of Paine's ideas. In difference from Inglis, Thomas Paine does not claim that some government is good, and some is bad. For Paine (1776), any government is the necessary evil, but one has out of two evils to choose the least, and in this case, the latter is democracy. Thus, Paine's position is not fanatical, and he deeply understands all the risks of his reforms, despite Inglis's objections.

James Chalmers Criticism of Common Sense

James Chalmers's position is much deeper and more intellectually sophisticated than that of Reverend Inglis. When Inglis just appeals to the negative sides of changes and tries to preserve the old political order because it would be better than anything new, Chalmers grounds his position on such philosophers as Hume and Montesquieu. These Enlighteners claimed that the British political order is the best one because it includes the best elements of all other political orders (Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy), and Chalmers in his Plain Truth shows it from different perspectives (Chalmers, 1776, p. 3). Through such an argumentation, the author (1776) concludes that Independence and Slavery are synonymous terms because independence means the separation from the best political system in the world and the further political degradation connected (according to Chalmers) with the eternal struggles and strives in a democratic society (p. 12). Certainly, such a position grounds of sophistic arguments because both Montesquieu (from France) and Hume (from Britain) wrote their texts in conditions that differed from those specific for the Americans. For example, it is clear that Montesquieu compared the British monarchy with the French one, and in this way, the whole construction of Chalmers argumentation looks like a connection of schemes that have no direct relation to the concrete American situation. This fact makes Chalmers criticism of Paine inadequate.

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John Adams Criticism of Common Sense

The most interesting criticism of Paine, one can find in the second American President John Adams Autobiography. It is clear that the American President could not be a loyalist and at the same time, he criticized Paines treatise that was the most influential manifesto that propagated American independence. As Zinn (1980) notes, Paine's treatise caused some tremors in aristocrats like John Adams, who was with the patriot cause but wanted to make sure it didn't go too far in the direction of democracy (p. 66). In other words, John Adams considered that Paine's position is too radical and in this way, it can be dangerous, because its political realization may destroy the American political and social structure. In his memoirs, he objects Paine for his quotations from the Old Testament that serve as the justification of Paine's criticism of all forms of tyranny (monarchy and aristocracy), and it is clear that Adams means the criticism of aristocracy as a too radical step (John Adams Autobiography, 1961, p. 1). He claims that the author of Common Sense looks like a superstitious or ignorant person when he uses some passages from the Old Testament for such reasons (John Adams Autobiography, 1961, p. 1). Another objection Adams provides is the Anarchy that could come from the democratic radicalism proclaimed by Paine in his text (John Adams Autobiography, 1961, p. 2). It is clear that Adams means the passages that concern the evil nature of any government; to some degree, these passages may be interpreted as those expressing the anarchist position because they deny any authority. Besides, in both cases, Adams looks just like a person who understands the challenges of the epoch not as deep as Paine did. Paine provided either the criticism of aristocracy or the diminishing of governments authority to make the Americans create a new political system that corresponds to their society in the highest degree.


The history of the American colonies struggling for their independence includes both military and ideological contradictions and struggles. The victory of those who supported and propagated independence and democracy demonstrated these people's rightness. Besides, the criticism provided by their opponents also had an important role, because it allowed the founders of the American state to organize the specific national forms of life through the constant dialogue and in this way, to take into account the purposes and considerations of all Americans.

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